Small business owners will tell you that starting your own company isn’t for the faint of heart. Neither is mountain living: the climate can be harsh, the cost of living high, and seasonal tourism can make it feel like you’re suffering through a drought or drinking from a fire hose.
BY AMANDA EGGERT
But there is a certain hardiness and ingenuity born of mountain living that translates well to the entrepreneurial experience, and the business owners featured in this story embody those qualities. Collectively, this group has more than 30 years of experience forging their own paths through the rapidly shifting economies of the Mountain West.
Start-ups are sure to play an outsized role in that transition moving forward. In the most recent annual ranking of start-up activity in the U.S., the Kauffman Foundation listed Montana as No. 3 for “Main Street Entrepreneurship.” Wyoming ranked No. 3 for start-up activity, and Montana was on its heels at No. 4.
And those findings weren’t a fluke. Montana has been listed in the top five for start-up activity for five years running. Following the 2015 rankings, in which Montana topped the list, Jonathan Ortman with the Kauffman Foundation released a report describing Montana’s “collaborative mindset and do-it-yourself, creative spirit” as a key component of the state’s business ecosystem.
So here’s to the brave souls who have chosen to launch businesses in the Greater Yellowstone region, for its mountain geography and independent spirit. Not only are they bringing unique products and services to market, they’re also expanding the entrepreneurial ecosystems within their chosen communities.
KELVIN WU | Maiden Skis
Making the leap
A self-described tinkerer, Kelvin Wu has a decade-long passion for using his engineering know-how to build the perfect ski. After years of experimenting on his own, he moved from Seattle to Jackson, Wyoming, to start Maiden Skis, a manufacturing company that builds completely custom skis, from the core and shape to topsheet and length.
“The biggest thing is just to really quit your day job and really commit to it,” said Wu, who was a research engineer at the University of Washington prior to his 2011 move to Jackson. “That was definitely daunting and scary.”
While Wu’s business is small—he’s a one-man show save for occasional shop help—word-of- mouth has served him well. He now builds 60 to 70 pairs of skis per year and estimates half of his clients come from the Jackson area. The other half seek out his customized skis from farther afield.
Wu has also worked with Teton Adaptive Sports to develop skis that better serve their needs. Wu’s engineering background comes into focus when he talks about replacing stock skis with custom models designed for skiers with disabilities.
“The off-the-shelf skis would end up breaking pretty easily, so we came up with a design that would work better for the forces and weight that a sit-skier would put on their skis,” he said. By volunteering his time this way, Wu is able to pull from his prior professional experience—he worked in a prosthetics lab at UW—while contributing to the adaptive skiing community.
Wu admits that he doesn’t delight in the minutiae of running a business—he refers to accounting, marketing and managing taxes as a “necessary evil”—but he’s grateful for the opportunity to support local nonprofits by donating skis to buoy their fundraising efforts. He also likes that he’s able to participate in the Jackson arts community by enlisting local artists’ creativity on his topsheets.
And, of course, owning Maiden has been good for the size of Wu’s quiver of skis (deep) and tally of days spent on snow (many). “I’m always trying new things—new shapes, new materials, new designs. Somebody’s gotta go test them.”
BRIAN CALDWELL | Thinktank Design Group
Shape the process from start to finish
It’s rare to find a businessperson who can bring a huge project to the finish line while also laboring over reams of detail, but architect Brain Caldwell of Bozeman does both.
Caldwell and his business partner Erik Nelson started Thinktank Design Group in 1999 to “promote contemporary architecture and modernist ideas about design and sense of place,” he said.
It hasn’t been an easy process for Thinktank, the firm behind downtown Bozeman’s Lark Hotel. Caldwell, who describes himself as an “all in” kind of guy, said he and Nelson learned to get involved in the building process long before a project is fully conceptualized, from the planning and zoning stages to studying up on real estate development. “To foster the ideas that we think are important for this place, we had to start at the beginning, where the decisions are being made,” Caldwell said.
For the Lark Hotel—which has been so successful since its April 2015 opening that a 29-room expansion is currently underway—Thinktank identified and secured the property, developed a business model, and went through the entitlement process in addition to the architectural design. Part of the design process for the distinctly modern hotel, Caldwell said, included “caring deeply about the soap dispensers.”
Although Jackson, Aspen and Vail boast a growing contemporary architecture influence, “for the most part, it’s the exception not the rule,” in mountain towns of the West, he said.
Caldwell believes in rooting his designs in the present and highlighting a place’s unique qualities. “For me, if I can tell you about why you’re there and speak to an authentic experience, that’s the most important thing.”
Although Thinktank also designs homes, Caldwell’s heart is in designing spaces that, like the Lark, get a lot of foot traffic. Other projects include a renovation of the historic Rialto Theater, which is slated to be unveiled in January 2018; and innovative spaces in Bozeman’s northeast neighborhood for creatives of all stripes. “It’s exciting because I get to share design ideas with someone new every day,” he said.
CHARLEY GRAHAM & LAUREN REICH | Little Star Diner
Pick the right market
Charley Graham and Lauren Reich scrutinized Bozeman carefully when they first encountered it in 2011. Did it have a vibrant, walkable main street? Were the recreational opportunities abundant, and nearby? How far to the closest organic farm?
Liking what they saw, the couple decided to relocate from Moab, Utah, and put down roots here. Graham spent several years as the head chef of downtown Bozeman’s highly acclaimed Blackbird Kitchen, and Reich opened a mini-farm south of Bozeman to grow organic produce for local restaurants.
But Reich said they’d long harbored a dream of opening their own restaurant focusing on seasonal local ingredients, a “low- key, classy place where people could come on a regular basis to eat good food.”
In September, they made good on their dream when they presented their exceptionally local fare to eager patrons of Little Star Diner. Reich grows much of Little Star’s produce south of Bozeman at Star Pudding Farm; they also source veggies and meat from other area farms.
Both of their fathers are entrepreneurs and that familiarity proved beneficial. “I think it feels a lot more attainable if you grow up with that,” said Graham, whose father is an award- winning furniture maker.
Graham and Reich also relied upon a lot of determination and a little luck. Their persistence through early setbacks demonstrated their commitment to others, particularly as they sought a location. When the space formerly occupied by Frank’s Deli in downtown Bozeman became available, they jumped at the opportunity.
“I remember thinking we’d be crazy to turn this down,” Graham said. The property owners had a similar vision for the space, and Graham and Reich were able to participate in the design and remodel process.
Little Star Diner has beautiful wood floors, a counter facing an open kitchen, ample windows and elegant, modern furniture that Graham’s father crafted out of white oak and black walnut.
Graham said he’s eager to see how Little Star’s menu changes in the next 10 years and how their relationships with farmers develop.
“That’s been one of the fun parts—being able to make connections with people that are doing cool things and helping them with their projects,” Reich said.
AMY HATCH | Garage Grown Gear
Tap into local resources for national impact
Amy Hatch, the Driggs, Idaho-based founder of Garage Grown Gear, felt there wasn’t a good resource to help start-ups transition from a successful Kickstarter campaign to a more traditional platform.
So she created one.
Five years after Hatch moved to Jackson from Alaska to become a ski instructor, she launched Garage Grown Gear, a website for consumers to discover and purchase inventive products made by small gear start-ups.
Hatch started the business in 2014 as an army of one after completing a rigorous 10-week boot camp for entrepreneurs in Jackson called the Start-Up Intensive. Three years later, Garage Grown Gear sells products for more than 50 companies and has grown to include five team members spread out between Idaho, Minnesota, Montana and Colorado.
E-commerce facilitated this growth by providing access to a broad customer base. “You can live in rural Idaho and start a business and you’re not necessarily dependent on the local economy to make it happen,” Hatch said.
That said, Hatch has found tremendous local support. A number of business-savvy residents with impressive resumes have shared their knowledge and time. “In a mountain town, people are really rooting for you and looking out for you,” she said, adding that it would be easy to get lost in the crowd if she was in San Francisco or Houston.
It took time for Hatch to find the intersection of her interests and a target market. “In the meanwhile it was all about trying lots of different things,” she said.
In March 2017, Garage Grown Gear merged with Big Outdoors,another e-commerce start-up,and Hatch shifted roles to the chief marketing officer. “It’s become an entity outside of myself, which is really cool,” Hatch said. “There’s a team of four other people making it tick smoothly.”
Hatch has worn a lot of hats to get to this point. “Like every start-up ever, it’s been a long and twisty road with lots of ups and downs and learning the hard way,” she said. The autonomy and solitude might not be for everyone, but it suits her well. “For me, it’s a beautiful balance. … I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Amanda Eggert is the senior editor of Mountain Outlaw magazine.